Archive for Nancy Reagan

Sothern Fried

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2018 by dcairns

Alert! Time for me to explore the works of Pat Jackson (if you’re nasty).

Jackson was a graduate of the GPO Film Unit, the UK postal service’s own film production arm, which also employed the great Cavalcanti, the obnoxious-sounding Harry Watt, and made the famous NIGHT MAIL. He then had a distinguished sojourn at the Crown Film Unit making war docs alongside Humphrey Jennings. He made his feature debut at MGM (as “Patrick Jackson” because “Pat” isn’t distinguished enough for a classy joint like MGM) with SHADOW ON THE WALL, a disjointed psychodrama starring Congo Maisie, Monte Beragon, Fanny Trellis Skeffington at aged 2, Gavin Elster (yay!), Sheriff Al Chambers and Nancy frickin’ Reagan.

Ann Sothern for once plays a villain, managing to incorporate some sympathy into a twisted character, and some subtlety into an intense, melodramatic story. But the film seems unable to decide WHO it’s about. We start on a wide of a lovely house, which is revealed to be an elaborate dollhouse, the first of many in the story. Andre Previn’s music veers from playfully childlike to sinister, then manages to dissonantly suggest both tones at once. We meet little Gigi Perreau, and then her dad, Zachary Scott, and discover through his eyes that his young wife (Kristine Miller, very glam indeed) is cheating on him with Tom Helmore.

While we’re pondering whether one should marry Monte Beragon and cheat with Gavin Elster, or vice versa, murder rears its antiseptic Hollywood head: Helmore was engaged to Miller’s sister, Ann Sothern, and she shoots her scheming sibling dead shortly after Miller’s stunned Scott by striking him on the nose with a hand mirror. When he awakens, he’s been neatly fitted up for murder, and will spend most of rest of the movie on death row, waiting. What nobody realises is that his little daughter witnessed the murder, but is in a state of shock and can’t tell anyone.

We now divide our narrative mainly between Nancy Davis/Reagan, a therapist trying to cure little Gigi, and Sothern, who’s trying to kill her. Much of Sothern’s business is internal, though, as she agonizes about her fear of being caught, culminating in a hilarious hallucination at the hairdressers —

 

There are some other nicer directorial touches. Jackson uses simple wide shots effectively, isolating our child non-protagonist (Gigi has no active goal, so she’s basically a nut for Nancy to crack). There are two major child jeopardy situations, one in which Gigi and a playpal debate which of them is to drink a glass of chocolate milk which Sothern has poisoned. The script milks (sorry!) this a good bit, but Jackson doesn’t do much with it. Probably a mercy.

But then Sothern tries to drown the moppet in the hospital’s hydrotherapy room, and all stops are pulled out, heaped up and set fire to. Looong lurking shot in the corridor, waiting, waiting, while infanticide is attempted behind closed doors. Merciless. Let’s remember that Truffaut said that jeopardising the life of a child in a drama was virtually an abuse of cinematic power (he did it in SMALL CHANGE, but he had reasons and had thought about it). Bruce Robinson, writing IN DREAMS for Neil Jordan, had felt unable to threaten a child’s life, despite the fact that he was writing a thriller about a child killer. This posed a problem. “It took me three months to solve it. It took Neil Jordan three minutes to fuck it up.”

Jackson had no such compunctions, it seems: he’d be back threatening children in cop drama THE GENTLE TOUCH a few films later.

I suspect Jackson didn’t find MGM a comfortable home — at any rate, he was soon back in the UK and back to being Pat. More on him soon.

 

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From the Id

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2018 by dcairns

It’s our old friend, the Monster from the Id! You can tell it’s him because (1) he’s invisible and (2) he’s behind a door. Just like always.

SHADOW IN THE SKY is directed by Fred M. Wilcox  (FORBIDDEN PLANET) and written by Ben Maddow right before he was blacklisted. It deals with a veteran with PTSD (Ralph Meeker) who comes to stay with his reluctant family, sister Nancy Davis/Reagan and brother-in-law and former comrade-in-arms James Whitmore, and their kids. It’s a sort of attempt to remake THE MEN with mental illness instead of paraplegia, but they mix things up enough, and everybody underplays heroically. This may be Nancy’s best film, in fact (though TALK ABOUT A STRANGER, shot by John Alton, is very good).

Ralph Meeker seems to be styled somewhat as Brando (and Maddow would go on to write THE WILD ONE). Some may find his tiny, tight buttocks enticing. Of course, he has that sneer. Best of all are his moments of automatism, where he’ll do some ordinary thing seemingly with nothing special on his mind, going through the motions of dancing or playing ping-pong, his thoughts simply elsewhere, perhaps directing the actions of a vast alien living intelligence system.

I found myself even able to sympathise with Nancy, who’s worried about her kids. There’s no reason to think Ralph is actually a danger to them. But certainly they might be distressed if he has one of his spells and flips out, hiding under a table and yelling, even though that’s the kind of thing kids themselves do all the time. Kids are funny that way — they either laugh at or are freaked out by adults behaving like them. Small-minded. On the other hand, Nancy’s fears are also irrational — the sense of madness as communicable taint, something to be shut away and not even spoken of, is ever-present.

Also — Jean Hagen as Ralph’s nurse girlfriend, an appealingly direct performance. These are all sort-of B-list players, but one wishes people of this quality could have enlivened FORBIDDEN PLANET (but I still love Anne Francis). I mean, come on, Ralph Meeker is good in anything.

Maddow’s sensitive script stops this being social-conscience pablum — the respectable suburbanites are driven by irrational fears as much as the traumatised vet — humour is allowed at unlikely moments — “Clayton’s afraid of people,” says Meeker of a friend, “Which is bad, because the world’s full of people.” And on his first morning in his new home, Meeker asks for an old hat. “There’s a bird in my room.” It sounds like something a crazy person in a dumb comedy would say, but there IS a bird in his room. He catches it in the hat, puts the hat on to contain the bird, climbs out the window, again seeming like a crazy person only we know otherwise… meets the kids for the first time. Raises his hat to them — and the bird flies out. Instantly the kids are very impressed with their new uncle.

OK, so it’s a very written idea, but effective and charming, I think.

 

Grey Matter

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2015 by dcairns

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I’ve been known to mock Curt Siodmak, to refer to him as the great Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother. “Is he your favourite idiot brother?” my friend Alex asked the other day. He isn’t even that, I was forced to admit — W. Lee Wilder is a still more remarkable specimen of the breed.

But I was really impressed by TV movie Hauser’s Memory — teleplay by Adrian Spies, based fairly faithfully I think on Siodmak’s novel. And then I stumbled on a copy of Donovan’s Brain, young Curt’s best-known book. It was filmed three times officially — as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston, as DONOVAN’S BRAIN with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan (wouldn’t they make a houseful) and as THE BRAIN, by Freddie Francis with Peter Van Eyck, but Curt hated all three versions. The radio production with Orson Welles is better — probably. I’ve been saving it for last.

The book is really enjoyable, with memorable characters in its cold-fish narrator, a rather inhuman scientist who steals the brain of a dying millionaire, and various sleazy types he meets once the brain starts to telepathically force him to do its bidding. The formula is similar to Hauser’s Memory  — a dead character possesses a live one, so while there’s a battle to maintain personhood by a character invaded by a foreign mind, there’s also a kind of investigation/puzzle where we want to find out the secret motivation of the mental invader.

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Siodmak had the unenviable task of retraining himself to write in English after he fled Hitler. Other filmmakers managed to adapt readily, but for a writer the challenge was far greater. Language was Siodmak’s instrument. Like his former collaborator Billy Wilder, he never quite got the American idiom down pat, but Wilder always worked with brilliant co-writers to smooth out any linguistic kinks. In his novels, Curt has to struggle along by himself. He would write sentences like “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” which possibly plays better in German, though I’m not wholly convinced of that.

Donovan’s Brain has sentences like “I woke at a very early morning hour,” which is weirdly OFF. In German, “very early morning hour” is probably one word, some beautiful compound noun a foot long. He gets his commas wrong here: “It might like a blind man, feel the light or, like a deaf one perceive sound.” I had to read that a couple of times to make sense of it, did you? And then there are bits where he reaches for an effect and his awkwardness with English makes him fall flat on his face: “Even the fact of our marriage had been dissolved in my work’s acid domination.”

But despite this, the book is a really good read! And it has bizarre stuff in it that’s never made it into any screen version. At one point, disoriented by the brain’s long-range control, the hero falls into a ditch and gets his vertebrae compressed by a steam shovel. He has to wear a full torso plaster cast that makes him look like a turtle for thirty pages. And this has no real impact on the plot at all. But it’s something I’d love to see in a film. It would particularly suit Von Stroheim, I feel.

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Young Curt was scathing about the changes inflicted on his book by filmmakers. In the Stroheim atrocity, directed by the sometimes skilled George Sherman, the mad scientist lives in a castle — in Arizona! — and the plot stops for a Spanish speciality dance before the brain has even been hatched. The novel goes like a train, but there’s no chance of zip with Erich setting the pace. The filmmakers supply him with a limp, just to slow things down even further, and instead of being an antihero he’s made a straight villain, with Richard Arlen as one of those useless heroes whose only purpose is to protest each new plot development. Ralston is fabulously bad, flashing her eyelashes with every other line to give “significant” looks.

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Felix Feist’s fifties fiasco is a lot closer to the letter of the book, but while Siodmak’s protagonist was somewhere between autism and Camus’ L’Etranger, Lew Ayres plays it repulsively HEARTY, and says things like “C’mon, get with it, baby!” I wanted to slap his brain. The more the script tries to render him likable, the creepier he gets. But I liked Gene Evans, who doesn’t seem like a movie surgeon at all, and who therefore may resemble a real one, I’m prepared to believe. And the future first lady vivisecting a monkey makes it kind of worthwhile.

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Freddie Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier on is one of the most laughably inept props ever — it looks like a half-deflated balloon with the crenellations drawn on in magic marker. Anne Heywood, Bernard Lee, Cecil Parker, Maxine Audley — the supporting cast is excellent, even before you get to Miles Malleson as a sherry-swigging coroner (who fails to say “Room for one more inside” despite ample opportunity) and Jack MacGowran as a blackmailing morgue attendant. Peter Van Eyck is the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the icy callousness of Siodmak’s protag, though he’s also curiously antic. But the plot gets caught up in scheming and forgets all about the poor brain. The balance is upset. Siodmak complained that the filmmakers added a stripper, but there’s no sign of her in the print I viewed.Though Anne Heywood, always game, flashes a nipple for about four frames.

Now I guess I have to watch CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.